So many maps

One of the great delights of golden age detective fiction is the plethora of maps that appear.

As I read through the recommended list of books from our conference speakers, three of the books I have just completed, Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh, Look to The Lady by Margery Allingham and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers feature maps (and sometimes more than one such map) of the locations where the crimes take place. And one need look no further than Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles to complete your full house of all four Queens of Crime including a plan of the setting for the action. They are, of course, not alone in having this feature.  Fully half of the books I have been reading in preparation for the conference, by almost any of the golden age authors, have something of the kind.

This fascination with pictorial representations of the scene in no way indicates shortcomings in the descriptive powers of the writers. This is far from the case. It appears more to be adherence to a convention and bowing, therefore, to their audiences expectations.

It does make for an interesting diversion from the main business of reading the story to check the maps to follow routes taken by characters – do they seem to be sensible ways to get from A to B in the time available? Will the alibis stand up?

But sometimes, the layout is not significant to the plot. In that case, is the presence of the map in itself a giant red herring, implying that character’s movements around the setting for the events is of greater importance to the solution of whodunnit than is in fact necessary?

Perhaps this is why two other books I have also read recently, X v Rex by Philip Macdonald (writing as Martin Porlock) and Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) do not use maps. Each is, in its way, consciously breaking with the traditions and conventions of the genre.  Neither is a classic whodunnit puzzle to be solved. The former is arguably the first attempt to portray a serial killer and reveal something of the killer’s psychology that drives them to commit the crimes; the latter is an inverted tale where you know the identity of the killer and the question is whether or not he will get away with the murder or be caught (wherein lies the suspense).

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Recommended Reading – No Spoiler Alert Required

I am continuing to work my way through the Bodies From The Library conference speakers’ recommendations. Thanks to the continuing wonder of the library service, I am able to get hold of all but the more obscure titles (sorry Martin Edwards – that means several of your recommendations!)

Without going into the plots – so no spoiler alert required – the historian in me has been piqued by the possibilities for studying the society which produced the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: Britain (for the most part) between the wars. What evidence do these novels, products of popular culture, written with no real thought for posterity but simply as entertainment, offer about the people, society and culture of those times?

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy NightUnnatural Death, and Have His Carcase, Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding and G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown, I am struck by the concern to avoid scandal and the inherent deference in the culture. Both Sayers’ and Crispin’s plots feature academic institutions – an Oxford College and a private school – whose primary concern when faced with crimes on their premises is to avoid the embarrassment of publicity rather than catching the perpetrator. The distinctly proletarian police seem more than willing to go along with this prioritisation by these upper-middle class establishments.

Indeed the class deference is taken further with the working-class police even allowing the aristocratic amateur Lord Peter Wimsey and the intellectual-elite Professor Gervase Fen not only to take an active part in the criminal investigation but at times to lead it.

That such plot devices were accepted without comment by the contemporary readers is indicative of a vastly more class-hierarchical society than modern Britain. It might be argued that readers then were less sophisticated than the modern reader and were more ready to suspend dis-belief in the interests of allowing the author to further the plot in a way that a modern audience would not because the modern audience requires the author to maintain precise accuracy in their adherence to procedures to establish their verisimilitude.

However, I suspect that such a line does a dis-service to contemporary readers between the wars. There is no reason to suppose that they were less demanding than readers now and a more plausible explanation is that the contemporary reader would find nothing comment-worthy in the deference to the elite because it reflected their own expectations of the society in which they lived.

The same could be said of the casual racism and anti-Semitism that pervades many of the novels. That a plot could hinge on a person being blackmailed over mixed-race parentage in their family, or that the idea of a white woman being abducted is more horrific because the abductor is believed to be black, indicates a level of racism inherent in the society that would be intolerable today. Indeed, notoriously, Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Niggers is now bowdlerised as And Then There Were None to reflect changing sensitivity in the use of the word, which is now treated by society as deeply offensive.  Yet, the use of “nigger” occurs many times in books of this era, both in the speech of characters and, perhaps more tellingly, in the author’s own voice as narrator, without arousing comment at the time of publication.

The same can be said of the treatment of Jewish characters. Often they are portrayed stereotypically, as avaricious or money-grabbing. Characters are sometimes described as being a Jew without further elaboration, as if that suffices to portray them in the reader’s mind. This cannot be put down to lazy writing on the part of the authors. For them to use this form of shorthand, the readers must have had a common understanding and set of beliefs which to the modern audience appears disturbing.

It is not, I must stress, that the authors were themselves specifically racist or anti-Semitic.  It is rather that they reflect the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of their times in their writing.

I must, however, single out G.K. Chesterton for a specific prejudice which says more about him than about the society in which he lived. When reading his short stories about the Roman Catholic priest cum detective Father Brown, it soon becomes apparent that if a person is described as “atheist”, “Presbyterian” or “Calvinist” then you can safely assume that the character will be irrational, arrogant, stupid, or unhappy, and is likely to be involved in the crime as either the killer or his victim.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism is eminently predictable as a result,

 

 

Eclipse trivia

in view of today’s eclipse I thought it worth mentioning the final paragraphs of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death (one of the recommended reads for the conference) which concludes with Lord Peter Wimsey emerging into the  June morning to witness an eclipse. This makes the date 29th June 1927 as this was the date on which a total eclipse could  be observed in London. 

For details of all the books recommended by our speakers go to The Bodies From The Library website. 

No Spoiler Alert Required

Encouraged by the suggested reading from our conference speakers, I have started to read (or in some cases, re-read) their recommendations in order to get the most out of their talks. I’m used to being the one in the room who knows least about the subject of Golden Age Detective Fiction but I want to have more than just a clue about what they are discussing.

So far I have read: Police At The Funeral by Margery Allingham, Green For Danger by Christianna Brand, The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr and An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson.

Without giving anything of the plots away (so no spoiler alert required), I have some questions I want to put to our experts at the conference about the means used in the first death of Police At The Funeral and why one of the characters does what they do in An Expert in Murder. It’s probably me missing something vital – not for the first time – but I do want to pick the brains that are cleverer than I am when I get the chance.

I did enjoy chapter 17 of The Hollow Man in which Carr’s detective Dr Fell delivers a lecture on the seven different types of “Locked Room Mystery” and how they may be distinguished. Needless to say, I shan’t be giving away into which category The Hollow Man actually falls.

I’m currently part way through Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. This has the advantage of featuring on both B.A. Pike’s list of recommended reading for his lecture on the works of Allingham and Sayers and on Richard Reynolds’ list for his lecture on The Oxbridge Murders. So it’s killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.

For details of our speakers’ recommendations go to:

https://thebodiesfromthelibrary.wordpress.com/suggested-reading/